The surprise of seeing military helicopters flying through downtown Minneapolis, an event that caught both residents and many government officials off guard last month, won’t happen again, a Minneapolis City Council committee was assured Wednesday.
Not just because police leadership acknowledged that the public notice was faulty. But also because — if Minneapolis Police Chief Janeé Harteau has her way — the city will no longer take part in the nighttime exercises that saw military helicopters flying over and between high-rise buildings in downtown Minneapolis and St. Paul. “In this case, we wanted to support our military and the training that they do,” assistant police chief Matt Clark told the Public Safety, Civil Rights and Emergency Management Committee. “But I will tell you that the chief made clear to me that we will not be approving any future training requests by this group.”
Yet Mayor Betsy Hodges, in a statement released later on Wednesday, did not rule out future training, though she did say any future agreements would require the public to be informed well ahead of the exercises. “We are grateful for the service of the men and women of these units and recognize the need for training,” read the statement. “We also understand the impact these exercises have on our residents. In the future, should the DOD request consent to train in Minneapolis, we will set the expectation that they provide clear notice to our residents.”
In St. Paul, a spokesperson for Mayor Chris Coleman said the city will insist that it handles its own public communications and that residents know of the exercises well ahead of time. “We’re basically taking over communications for St. Paul just as we did two years prior,” said Tonya Tennessen, Coleman’s communications director, referencing the fact that Minneapolis police were given the task of releasing information for both cities regarding the training.
The flights began at dusk on Monday, August 18. In Minneapolis, black helicopters flew repeated sweeps through the city, sometimes appearing to touch down on the roof of the Federal Reserve Building along the Mississippi River, and then flying over and through downtown buildings.
In St. Paul, copters flew above and between downtown buildings. In both cities, council members complained that they were not able to respond to questions and concerns from residents, mostly because they hadn’t been informed.
A statement was finally released by the Minneapolis Police Department on the first night of training, but not before the initial flights had been going on for 90 minutes.
Clark said a request was made by the Naval Special Warfare Command late in 2013 to reprise a training exercise the group had conducted in 2012 that had not been as disruptive.
While both Hodges and Coleman had to approve the training, Clark said that Hodges feels she did not get a “full assessment on the extent of what this training would be like.”
Clark also said the federal Department of Defense had to approve all public statements and did not want too much advanced notice. A press release prepared August 13 was not authorized for release until 9:30 p.m. on the 18th. That still would have been timely had the flights started on Tuesday, the 19th, as military officials had pledged, Clark said.
But the flights began Monday. “I would agree with you and the chief also agrees that that message should have been sent earlier and much clearer to the public as well as yourselves,” Clark said.
Neither cities’ police departments took direct part in the training, which also included exercises at public facilities, including the Minneapolis water plant in Fridley. The police departments did provide security and logistics, mostly to keep residents away from the training sites.
On Wednesday, the Public Safety Committee also made a formal request that would require the full city council to approve any use of city resources for future exercises, which would guarantee that it knows about the exercises.
Council Member Cam Gordon said his constituents were upset and confused the first night of the training, “and I looked like a big idiot because I couldn’t say what was going on.”
“We’re all being so calm and civil here but this was a pretty big deal for our city,” Gordon said. “People were really alarmed and concerned and wanted to know what was going on, and we didn’t have a lot of good answers to tell them.”
But he said his concerns went beyond the lack of public notice. “I thought it actually posed a very serious public safety risk to people because these were big machines full of fuel flying in an urban area that was densely populated,” Gordon said. “It didn’t make any sense.”
In St. Paul, the loudest voice objecting to the training has been Council Member Dave Thune, who voiced similar complaints to his counterparts in Minneapolis: that the training was dangerous and that he was not informed. He told the Pioneer-Press that he received more than 100 messages the first evening of the training.
But in a blog post linked from his city council webpage two days later, Thune said he spoke with police officials and was satisfied that the city did not take direct part. “Shit happens,” he wrote. “It was an honest breakdown in communications that left us surprised and unnerved.”
The solution, he said, is release information locally and not turn it over to officials from the federal government or Minneapolis officials, as happened in August. “Despite the shock and awe, we have a very, very well-trained and brave national defense force that does need to train for the unspeakably evil purveyors of terror around the world and potentially here at home.”